Drunk on Words

Was considering the precept regarding intoxication. And the current political climate. And the cultural push to develop a will to power as a desirable thing.

What seems to happen is that many get drunk on the power of words. Words become weapons is an old cliché. That’s about what words can do to whomever they are directed.

What do words do to or for the speaker of them?

Lots of times they are used to help the speaker feel better about themselves. In “talk therapy” for instance one talks about their problems and feelings and at some point may be able to get a grip on untenable situations.

In other instances they can bolster a wavering self-confidence-the old Thomas the train “I think I can” mantra.

They can be points of contact such as when one says “I see where you’re coming from.” or “Please give me more information about that”

They can increase a sense of belonging or attachment such as “I appreciate you all coming to the meeting today”  “Thanks for being there for me”

A sense of autonomy can be defined “I can manage this myself, thanks”

Boundaries can be set up “That’s not my particular style but you go ahead if you want to”

Responsibility is defined by accepting a role in the participation “Yes I did make that comment and even if it’s not well received it’s still mine.”


Oddly all of these benefits can be obtained by the negative use of words as well. Lets call that maladaptive. disinhibited or drunken speech.


To feel better about myself I can point out “So and so is an idiot [the unspoken part is “compared to me”]”

To gain self-confidence some “positive” reinforcement “I’m better than that [them]” Lots of spiritual folks like this one.

Points of contact generally start with “Let me tell you how it really is…” followed by a lecture that includes lots of other drunken speech. This seems to be favored by evangelists of all types.

And as for increasing senses of belonging or attachment “We’re in this fight together till the bitter end”  and pointing out all the deficiencies of “the other”.

Autonomy becomes “Get out of my face”

Boundaries are defined by “I’d never do something that stupid.”

Responsibility is defined by accepting a role in the participation in a roundabout kind of way “I wouldn’t have done it if you hadn’t forced me to.”


If you know people who drink a lot perhaps the latter group sound familiar. [I have and do know] It can get pretty abusive even though the underlying motivation is the same. I’ve used all of the above at some time or another, so has everyone reading this.

The maladaptive variety tends to come out of a sense of insecurity, irritation or discomfort with whatever is happening at the moment. It also tends to be rather short lived and myopic just as a bout of drunkenness is.

The intoxication with the power of words seems to come about for a variety of reasons [by no means an exhaustive list]:

  • power. When a sense of powerlessness becomes conscious and uncomfortable (relative deprivation is a useful term for that) people feel small and invisible relative to what they see around them. This sense of powerlessness can be real, as in economic disparity or it can be manufactured as in false claims of “tyranny” . The distortions caused by latching on to power concepts are pretty obvious in the world today.
  • security. Security is about protection and safety. We can pile up a lot of ideas about what is and isn’t safe. Most of them are illusory. The few that may be grounded in reality often get inflated and infect other ideas. For example “Don’t walk down X street at night” Reason-it’s a high crime area.  Unless one is fluent in demographics that calls for a full stop. But what happens is additional and often erroneous information is added. “People of a certain type/color/status live there” This gets conflated into the reality of the situation to become “People of a certain type/color/status are all dangerous criminals.”
  • importance. This puts prominence on the speaker’s emotion or objective over the hearer’s reaction.  It means “Anything I want to say is my right. What happens after that is not my concern?” Fairly narcissistic and irresponsible. Happens a lot in political and activist circles. There is a complete lack of connection to a broader audience and empathy for others.
  • individuality. Dramatic demonstrations of difference from the crowd and the wish to be viewed as unique and special relate to the fear of being overlooked, ignored or forgotten, of not having one’s social needs met. When it becomes pathological it is usually anger driven for those reasons.
  • anomie. Anomie means someone feels out of step with their group or society. There are not shared values or purposes and one is left feeling alone and isolated. Because of this disconnection the effect of words may matter less. There is a disinhibitory effect. This is not to be confused with conscious decisions to examine and challenge the status quo based on demonstrable situations of inequality or the like.

All of these relate to the social nature of the ego. The ego is after all a social construction, a useful one to be sure, as we are social animals and need to know how to relate to one another but it is a construction all the same. It psychologically provides a framework for analytical consciousness as well as socially providing a library of socio-cultural experience and information which we reference in order to survive.

If we live in that ego concept and hold to it for the temporary sense of security it can provide then we are far more subject to the vicissitudes of changing environments than if we recognize we are doing that when we are doing that.

There is a representation of a continuum of speech I’ve just invented that goes something like this. Both ends of this would be anti-social speech and the center takes into account the context of the situation as well as the effects upon the receivers of the words.

silence… anti-social

inhibited… greatly fearful of results (anti-self in a way sometimes)

cautious… somewhat fearful

ruled… means following some prescribed formula, as in business meetings

appropriate… somewhat ruled or moderated by circumstances

assertive… open about discomforts

disinhibited… freely speaking but with awareness of situation

aggressive… attempting to dominate the forum regardless of reactions

maladaptive…  anti-social, speech that uses others for personal reasons

drunken or intoxicated…anti-social, strictly about the individual and disregarding both social and appropriate contexts


When I say anti-social that is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes aggressive speech is necessary to shake up complacency.  And sometimes silence is advisable to avoid escalation into violent confrontation. When it gets into the maladaptive area though then there is not much utility to it except for power laden expressions and the satisfaction that comes from that. Silence too can be maladaptive if it is used in a passive-aggressive fashion such as by shunning people.

So whether we are talking about Right Speech in the Buddhist sense or rhetoric in the inflamed sense there are a lot of subtle positions which we can adopt that might fit into either of those depending on the context and our awareness of our ego state at the time.

One comment on “Drunk on Words

  1. “Talk with yourself and you’ll say what you wanna know.” Aerosmith.

    Language to me is the basis of personality in that we really are defined by the words we use and how we communicate. And mental illness is manifested by dysfunctional language. Now, whether the dysfunctional language came first and then altered brain chemistry or the other way around is not clear. But I think you can use how people speak to assess not only their personality type, but their overall mental health as well. The Buddha knew this, which is why he deferred certain questions not so much as unanswerable, but attempting to answer them was a diversion from the path. We divert ourselves all the time. Just like I did right now in posting this comment, lol. Oh well.

Comments are closed.